Ethiopia’s Omo Valley is one of the last African frontiers.
It is so remote that you can get here only by chartering a bush flight - or else by driving for two days from the capital Addis Ababa along desolate, bumpy tracks that snake into villages without electricity or running water.
Perhaps it's because they are so isolated from the rest of the world that the nine tribes here — numbering some 225,000 people - have held on for so long to tribal traditions passed on by unknown ancestors many generations ago.
The Kara tribe decorate their faces and bodies with distinctive multi-colored chalk and paint patterns for celebrations and as signs of cultural rites and status. But as life-affirming as their ornate displays might seem, the people of this hardscrabble and unforgiving land hold deadly ancient rituals -- practices that are shrouded in secrecy and that may seem abhorrent to the average Westerner.
One of those is the age-old ritual called "mingi."
Mingi — a concept so taboo that the word is rarely spoken aloud in the Omo Valley — is the belief that a baby is "cursed" if it is born out of wedlock or, even more bizarrely, if the child's top teeth appear before the bottom teeth.
Children declared mingi are thought to bring drought, famine or disease to the tribe — so they are killed. Helpless infants are drowned in the Omo River, left to die in the bush, or suffocated — their mouths filled with soil to stop them from breathing. It’s impossible to know how many children have suffered this fate but – as the practice is so old and ingrained – experts estimate the number is many thousands.
"I said, 'Okay, one day I'm going to fix this problem."
Lale Labuko, a tall, handsome 32-year-old (though he doesn’t know his exact birth date) with an acute intelligence, grew up in the village of Dus along the Omo River. He is a member of the Kara, a tribe of about 3,000, but he had no idea about his people's dark secret until he was a teenager.
"What changed my life is when I was 15-years-old, I was walking in the village," said Labuko. "And I saw the elders run and they grabbed a two-year-old child from the mother. And I was just watching and looking. And the mother was crying. And the child was crying."
Horrified, he ran to his mother to ask what was happening.
"She warned me not to tell other people: 'If you tell other people our family will be in risk,'" Labuko said. He learned that the baby, a girl, had been taken from its mother and drowned in a river.
"And I was really, really crying. And my mother said, 'Well, son, don't cry. One day you will kill your child and your friend is going to kill their child.'"
Lale holds hands with children he has helped save.
Perhaps his mother was trying to dispel her own hidden shame – or else was hinting to her son that the mingi curse was closer to home than he might ever have suspected. But as Lale grew up, he found out that two of his own siblings – both infant girls, thought to be bearing the mingi curse – had been put to death.
At the time, Labuko was on break from a Swedish-run Christian boarding school that his father, a respected village elder, had sent him to when he was nine-years-old. Labuko vowed then that he would use his education, rare among tribal members, to break the mingi cycle.
He recalls saying to himself, "'I'm here for some reason. This is bad. This is unacceptable. But these people are not bad.' I said, 'Okay, one day I'm going to fix this problem.'"
Believing that he might one day change hundreds of years of tradition set Labuko on a collision course with his tribe.
Dr. Ivo Strecker, who has studied and written on the cultures in the Omo Valley extensively and has taught at the University of Addis Ababa, noted that the Kara people have a unique cosmology that makes mingi possible, even tolerable.
"It’s more a ritualism and magical view of life, where you perpetuate creation," said Strecker. "You don’t find these kind of people (in other parts of the world) any more, that kind of unalienated view of man’s place in nature."
In the view of the Omo Valley people, “human beings are central to keeping the whole universe in good shape, and that good shape is the responsibility of the community,” said Strecker. Mingi is seen as accounting for negative omens with positive action, a necessity against greater chaos and evil.
And that’s why, when Labuko decided he wanted to end the practice of mingi, he realized he would have to go against some of the core beliefs of his culture – its very faith.
He might not have been able to consider taking action if he had not met an American, John Rowe.
In 2004, Rowe, a retired software exec who had developed computer games for X–Box and Nintendo, was living his passion for photography and came to the Omo Valley to take pictures of the regions exotically-painted tribespeople and their beautifully untouched land. He hired Labuko as a guide and the two soon developed a close bond. After five years of friendship, Labuko felt he trusted Rowe enough to tell him about his tribe's deadly custom – and his plans to change it.
"The word mingi was never uttered. It was taboo."
Rowe was dumbfounded by what Labuko was telling him.
"When I heard Lale's story, when I heard about mingi, when I heard these babies were being killed like this, I said, ‘Okay, that's it. We're gonna draw a line in the sand right here. These kids are gonna be okay. We're gonna protect 'em,'" Rowe said.
"The word mingi was never uttered. It was taboo. You certainly didn't discuss that with somebody outside the tribe," said Rowe.
Despite the taboos, Rowe wound up teaming up with his Ethiopian friend to rescue potential young victims of the mingi curse.
And in the past five years Labuko's and Rowe’s Omo Child organization has saved some 40 children, taking them to a safe house away from the tribe where he and a small, dedicated team feeds, clothes and educates them.
But Labuko wasn’t satisfied with just saving children. He wanted to end the practice once and for all -- not just in his own tribe, but throughout Ethiopia.
Ignoring death threats from fellow tribesmen, Labuko organized young tribal members and set about cajoling and convincing Kara elders that the mingi curse’s time had passed.
A final vote was schedule in July 2012. Labuko made one last pitch.
“I told them this day is [a] historical day. It’s a different day,” he said.
And then, after centuries of sacrificing children to ward off death, disease and drought, Kara tribal elders voted to officially end mingi killings.
But Labuko didn’t stop there. He soon began talks with kings from the nearby Hamer tribe, 57,000 people strong. And earlier this summer, one king who oversees 21,000 members of the tribe, announced that he too would stop killing children in the name of mingi.
Labuko and Omo Child continue to work to end the practice of mingi. Find out more here.
First published July 13 2014, 11:49 AM